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Why an Olympic runner’s simple gesture meant so much in Minnesota

Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa’s protest gesture resonated powerfully in a place that’s home to one of the world’s largest Oromo communities.

Feyisa Lilesa of Ethiopia gesturing as he crossed the finish line in the men's marathon in Rio.
REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

On Sunday morning, as Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa crossed the finish line at the Olympic marathon in Rio, he raised his arms above his head in the form of an X.

Millions of spectators around the world might have seen the gesture as a celebration — Lilesa had won a silver medal, after all. But the runner wasn’t just marking his triumph. He was showing solidarity with his fellow ethnic Oromo in his East African country — a simple gesture that had powerful reverberations around the globe, but especially in Minnesota, home to one of the world’s largest Oromo communities.

“What [Lilesa] did was a very brave act,” said Hassen Hussein, an assistant professor at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota who is Oromo. “It was the right thing to do. The oppression that Oromo has been facing for years has now gotten the international attention it deserved. Because of his action, there are all kinds of talks about what’s going in the country.”

Nasir Hamza, an assistant imam at Tawfiq Islamic Center in Minneapolis, agreed, saying Lilesa put the Oromo people’s longstanding struggle in the spotlight in a way very few acts could have.

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“This is a huge victory for the community,” Hamza said. “What we have been fighting for the past 25 years, he did it in a matter of seconds.”

A dangerous situation

At the heart of that fight is the Ethiopian government’s repression of the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. Two years ago, the Oromo protesters rose up in opposition to a proposal to incorporate Oromo territory into the country’s capitol city of Addis Ababa. The plan would displace farmers on the city outskirts and erase the identity of Oromo people, explained Hussein. 

Last November, the protest was rekindled. This time, the government faced demonstrators from both the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups over human rights abuses and the plans to allocate more Oromo farmland for development.

In response to the protests, Ethiopian security forces have killed hundreds of people, and it was that forceful suppression of peaceful demonstrations that Lilesa was commenting on in Rio.

Hassen Hussein
Courtesy of Hassen Hussein
Hassen Hussein

“In the last nine months, more than 1,000 people died,” the runner told reporters after the race. “And others charged with treason. It’s a very dangerous situation among Oromo people in Ethiopia.”

In fact, Hussein said, people don’t have any freedom to express themselves in Ethopia. “You cannot have grievance against the government,” he said. “You would be a terrorist. You cannot go in the streets and protest. You can get killed and go to jail.” 

That’s why Lilesa didn’t return to Ethiopia with his team on Tuesday. Instead, he’s remained in Brazil for fear of being arrested or killed by the government in retaliation. “If I go back to Ethiopia, maybe they will kill me,” he told reporters after his race. “If I am not killed, maybe they will put me in prison.” 

‘Finally, the world knows’

The estimated 40,000 Oromo in Minnesota were familiar with Lilesa’s symbolic protest long before it became a social media sensation. What was important for them was that he offered the gesture on one of the biggest stages in the world.

For years, the Oromo people have been trying to raise awareness about the issues in their country, and were often frustrated that they couldn’t get the attention of the mainstream media.

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That changed thanks to Lilesa, who Najat Hamza, an Oromo community advocate in the Twin Cities, calls a “godsend” for her country. “We knew what he did for us,” she added. “We knew what the gesture meant before the world found out. … Finally, the world knows about our struggle.”  

Nasser Mussa
Courtesy of Nasser Mussa
Nasser Mussa

Nasser Mussa, a Minneapolis Oromo-American activist, hopes that Lilesa’s action inspires Oromo people to continue their struggle against the Ethiopian government, one of the most repressive in Africa.

“It helps Oromos not to rest,” he said. “It encourages people to stand up for themselves and stand up for justice and freedom. This is really a significant step for a lot of Oromos who are looking for moral encouragement.”

Lilesa has yet to announce where he may go to seek asylum. But it’s likely that he would end up in the United States, Canada or Europe, where most of those escaping persecution in Ethiopia choose to live. 

Najat Hamza said that two individuals from the Oromo community in Florida and a lawyer are currently with Lilesa in Rio to support and consult with him, and thousands of donors have so far raised more than $139,000 as part of a GoFundMe campaign to support Lilesa.

“When it comes to where he would live, I don’t really know who’s going to take him in,” she said. “But I wish our governor and senators would find it in their heart to bring him home to us, because he doesn’t have a home now.”